Combining an enriching career and a loving relationship is a dream for many people. But for women, this could be even utopia.
The World Economic Forum lead a research in Sweden on this topic (nowadays, the proportions of female CEOs, corporate board members, and top-level parliamentarians in Sweden are among the highest in the world, so by studying Sweden, we can get a sense of what lies ahead for other countries). They started to follow top-level politicians and CEOs who were married four years before the election/promotion and found that women pay a high price for their career success.
Starting with politicians, there’s a striking difference between women who win and women who lose. Once the women who were promoted to mayor or parliamentarian assume their job, the rate of divorces doubles compared to the women who failed to win the promotion. Among men, there is no evidence of a similar effect.
Turning attention to CEO promotions, they compared men and women who became promoted. Over time, there’s a striking pattern where women, after becoming CEO, start divorcing at a clearly higher pace than the men with the same career transition.
Are women happier without their relationship? This is possible, but zooming in on which relationships are more likely to end after the promotion, we get closer to understanding the reasons for women’s divorces, which has more to do with couple formation. Heterosexual women who “marry up” (enter relationships with men who are older and earn more money than they do) could experience particular frictions at home if they get a promotion. The economic and status balance that the couple used to have gets out of balance. In the Swedish data, divorces after promotion affect mainly couples in which the wife was younger than her husband by a larger margin and where the wife took a larger share of the parental leave. The situation looks entirely different in more gender-equal couples: for women with a smaller gap in age to their spouse, and who split parental leave more equally with their partner, divorce is not affected by the wife’s promotion.
What should women do to live a fulfilling relationship and have a brilliant career at work? To cite the Swedish top politician Birgitta Ohlsson, in her book on career advice to young women: “the most important career move is to find the right husband.”